Between 1886 and 1941, Emile Bernard produced a self-portrait almost every year. For him, it was an opportunity to demonstrate his stylistic development, and to express his states of mind. In this respect, the Symbolic Self-portrait of 1891 is particularly revealing of the situation in which Bernard found himself at that precise moment, and of the new direction his art was taking.
In fact, the artist was going through a period of solitude and questioning at that time. He had just lost his friend Van Gogh and broken with Paul Gauguin, without the importance of his role within the Pont-Aven school being recognised. His love life was not going well, and, prey to numerous doubts, Bernard turned to a mystical and religious expression that is very noticeable in this astonishing painting with its double meaning.
In the foreground, we can see Bernard as he had always portrayed himself, with his wide forehead, his moustache and goatee. His introspective expression and the dark tones, reveal his anxiety and his questions.
The bust of the painter stands out against a red, dreamlike background, dominated by a Christ-like figure, and filled with bathers. These women are from Bernard's own works painted between 1887 and 1890, in which he expressed his deep admiration for Cézanne. By quoting himself in this way, Bernard is claiming his status as an artist.
Taking Symbolist imagery as his inspiration, and putting different narrative registers side by side, Bernard, in his Symbolic Self-Portrait, produces a transitional work. He opens the way to a kind of expressive modernity, notably that of Edvard Munch, but also to the bold pictorial innovations of artists like André Derain, and Pablo Picasso from 1905 to1908.